Historic Siniawan – Quiet by day, lively by night

Dragon dances will be performed every year during the Chap Goh Mei celebration in Siniawan, Bau. Photo: Ghazali Bujang
BY WARTAWAN KITA

Located about 26km from here, Siniawan, a small town in Bau District, was once a forgotten place, typifying the early Sarawak towns where time seemed to stand still.

Siniawan is actually a street flanked by two rows of shops – 24 on each side.

The shops are all made out of wood like most of the old buildings from the old Sarawak Kingdom era.

During the day, it looks like an abandoned ghost town that would not attract visitors.

However, who would have guessed the riverside ‘cowboy’ town would turn into a very lively place in the evening with locals and outsiders drawn to it to enjoy the beautiful twilight scenery.

The best time to come is just as the sun sets, as you’ll be able to see the main street coming to life.

Apart from horse riding demonstrations, Salim Zaini also offers horse riding services to visitors at the Siniawan Cowboy Festival with a fee of RM10 to RM20. Photo: Ghazali Bujang

Shutters are rolled up, stalls are set up and shops open for business for the night.

Decorative red lanterns bob overhead, reflecting the town’s Hakka Chinese heritage, while vendors peddle delicious street food.

The Siniawan night market operates from 6pm to 11pm on Fridays and Saturdays, and Sundays from 5pm to 11pm.

Some of the must-tries include pitcher plants stuffed with steamed glutinous rice, a traditional Bidayuh delicacy, as well as kompiah – mini burger-like buns stuffed with meat and various fillings.

There is also halal food sold by Muslim traders. Diners can savour their food in an open-air setting, flanked by the town’s unique buildings.

Siniawan Old Town Night Market. Photo: Sarawak Tourism

While tourists may come in droves now, it wasn’t that long ago that the town was on the verge of being abandoned but for the staunch efforts of the local community.

Once a bustling trading town, Siniawan traces its beginnings back to the 1840s.

Encouraged by growing trade and the gold rush in nearby Bau, Hakka Chinese traders fleeing Dutch mistreatment in Sambas (now West Kalimantan) settled in Siniawan.

Back when roads and infrastructure were scarce, the river was the heart of trade in Sarawak, and Siniawan quickly grew to become a prosperous trade settlement.

Its strategic location meant that boats travelling from Kuching to Bau stopped frequently to refuel and trade. At its peak, the settlement had over 300 Chinese traders.

By the late 1850s, however, new taxation laws implemented by British adventurer and ‘White Rajah’ James Brooke, who ruled Sarawak at the time, caused unrest among the gold miners of Bau.

Led by their leader Liu Shan Bang, 600 miners launched an attack on Brooke’s mansion in Kuching, intent on taking his life.

Siniawan Old Town Night Market. Photo: Sarawak Tourism

Brooke escaped, and his nephew Charles Brooke led an Iban force to quell the rebellion. Battles were fought in and around Bau and near Siniawan.

Local legend has it that Buso and Bau (Malay for smelly and smell respectively) were so named due to the stench of rotting corpses.

Fearing they would be caught up in the fighting, the Siniawan Chinese fled back to Sambas, and the town lay empty for many years.

In the 1870s, a new wave of Hakka Chinese from China came to Siniawan and rebuilt the town. The wooden shophouses that visitors see today date back to the 1910s.

Unlike the colonial Sino-Portuguese shophouses of Peninsular Malaysia, the architecture in Siniawan features tall, rectangular windows and vertical wood-panelled construction.

They also sport rustic, unpainted facades, lending to its ‘cowboy town’ vibe. The architectural style is said to be Javanese.

Besides the night market, the town regularly hosts cultural events and festivals. In 2016, the town organised its inaugural Siniawan Festival, a food and heritage festival with a country music theme.

The event was an unexpected success and has become an annual fixture.

“Our aim is to make Siniawan a hub for tourism, by integrating the entire experience with other tourism offerings as part of a comprehensive package.

“One thing that makes Siniawan unique is the harmonious relationship between the different races living here. The town’s population is mostly Chinese, but the villages surrounding it are mainly Malay and Bidayuh, and there is much intermingling between the different groups,” said Serembu assemblyman Miro Simuh.

In fact, during the launching of the festival, the Tourism, Arts and Culture Ministry also identified the Old Siniawan Bazaar as a new tourism destination in the state.

According to Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg, who was then Tourism, Arts and Culture Minister and Deputy Chief Minister, the over-a-century-old bazaar had met the prerequisites to be declared a heritage site.

He also believed that the Old Siniawan Bazaar would gain great popularity after its gazettement as a heritage site and its promotion alongside other tourist spots in the area such as Wind Cave and Fairy Cave.